Study Guide

A Year Down Yonder Coming of Age

By Richard Peck

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Coming of Age


The trunk, a small one, held every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother's that fit me. "Try not to grow too fast," she murmured. "But anyway, skirts are shorter this year." (P.2)

Poor Mary Alice can't help that she's growing bigger and taller—after all, she's a teenager. But her parents can't exactly afford to buy her new clothes right now, so she'll have to make do with her too-short clothes.

Chapter 1

I stood there, fifteen, trying to die of shame. Grandma didn't understand about high school. She was trying to get the janitor to enroll me. (1.37)

Oh, dear. Is there anything worse than being embarrassed by your grandmother at a new school? Mary Alice is fifteen years old, which means that she feels embarrassment more acutely than she did as a kid—or will as an adult. Isn't adolescence great?

Chapter 4

There were little changes stirring in me. I began to notice how old Grandma was, how hard she worked herself, how far from town she'd roam in the frozen nights, across uneven ground. I began to want to be there with her, to make sure she'd come safely home. (4.60)

Mary Alice is growing up, and not just because she's suddenly taller and more interested in relationships. She's also starting to notice that the grown-ups around her aren't indestructible—even her tough-as-nails grandmother.

Chapter 6

Royce McNabb was a math whiz. One of the rumors swirling around him was that he was teaching himself trigonometry, whatever that is. And he was the best-looking boy in the county. So I formed a plan. I'd been forming it since Valentine's Day, but now I'd have to speak to Grandma. (6.64)

As a heterosexual teenage girl, Mary Alice is not immune to the charms of Royce McNabb—the tall drink of water who's moved to this little podunk town. She's determined to catch his eye, even if it means facing off with Carleen Lovejoy. Or having an awkward conversation with Grandma Dowdel.

At last, Miss Butler chanced a glance across the groaning table at Arnold Green. I was too young to know how much a dangerous man interests a good woman.

His glasses were steamed from the dinner, so it was hard to catch his eye. But she spoke. "I so admire the artistic temperament." (6.153-154)

Mary Alice thinks she's all grown-up, but she still doesn't know the inner workings of how people are attracted to each other. And so she's absolutely floored when Miss Butler and Arnold Green hit it off. Who would have thought it? Aside from Grandma Dowdel, of course.

I supposed my life was over. On Monday at school, I couldn't even look Royce McNabb's way. I supposed all his worst fears about me had been realized, and then some. Now he thought I lived in a madhouse with a trigger-happy grandma and snakes and naked—nude women in the attic. (6.129)

Is there anything worse when you're a teenager than being embarrassed by your own family? Or actually, just being embarrassed in general? Mary Alice is horrified by the events that happen when she invites Royce over. She's pretty sure she and her crazy grandmother have made the worst. First impression. Ever.

Bootsie had only brought her up for a visit, to show me. Now she was taking her baby back to the cobhouse where they lived. So that's the way it worked. I stood in the afternoon light and shed a tear or two. It didn't take much to set me off, now that I was sixteen. (6.13)

On top of outgrowing her skirts, Mary Alice is now also finding herself in fits of hormonal melancholy. She cries when Bootsie takes her new kitten away. Classic teenage angst.

"You know," he said in his manly voice, "percentages are basically decimals. Maybe we ought to start there."

I blinked. Did he notice I didn't put that stuff on my eyelashes that Carleen put on hers? (6.83-84)

Mary Alice is trying as hard as she can to look grown-up and attractive when Royce comes over. But he seems more interested in tutoring her on math, which is pretty frustrating. Decimals? He's talking decimals? Doesn't he realized she's so nervous she tore her lacy handkerchief in half? Mmm-hmm. That's .5 handkerchiefs. Times two.

Chapter 7

When I came in that night with straw in my hair, I knew it was time for a showdown with Grandma. She was in the front room, pretending to be asleep in the platform rocker. As a rule, she had to wake up to go to bed. But she was sitting up for me, awake behind her eyelids. (7.90)

By the end of the book, Mary Alice is no longer intimidated by her tough Grandma Dowdel. In fact, she's ready to argue with her and make a case for staying on instead of going back to Chicago.

Graduation was coming, though we were only graduating five: four girls who never spoke to anybody younger, just like in Chicago, and Royce McNabb. They'd chosen their class motto:

ONLY TO BEGIN. (7.6-7)

All good things must come to an end. Before Mary Alice realizes it, the school year is over and she's spent all this time at Grandma Dowdel's without going crazy with boredom. So…now what? Has she finished something, like the class motto suggests? And if so, what is she about to begin?

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